Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ordinary Beauty in the East Bay

I came across an interesting post on beauty and its price tag on the Daily Kos. Here is an excerpt:
One of the most interesting social and journalistic experiments related to this took place last year and involved a busker named Joshua. Joshua played his violin in the L'Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington, D.C. For nearly an hour, Joshua performed for approximately 1,110 people who passed by. Just 27 of them made contributions that totalled about $30. Only seven people paused to listen for more than a minute. The rest of the commuters walked by, without listening or donating.

The funny part is that Joshua is actually Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist. The pieces he played in the subway are some of the most difficult works a violinist can master. But that day, his performance earned him about $30.

I can't help but wonder if it might have been different here in the East Bay. The author goes on to say:
...This experiment seems to indicate that we value what we can quantify: We value an exceptional violinist only when we buy a ticket to his or her performance that takes place in a traditional setting. The same musician playing for free in the subway is invisible.

Our conspicuous consumption of all things luxurious and our disdain for anything less than elegant seems to go way beyond the world of music. Some women covet Birkin bags that cost $60,000(my wife asked for one of these I laughed so hard milk almost shot out of my nose lol)! Even Oprah's favorite things, listed monthly in O magazine are well beyond the means of most of her readers. (A pillow for $150? A $48 candle?) The funny thing about all of this is that anyone who would recognize, and be impressed by, a Hermes ashtray -- is the same person who would own one. So who impresses whom?

Although we are not immune to the vices of consumerism, these luxury goods are not so coveted on the streets of Berkeley. Berkeley women are still known for choosing the comfort of Birkenstocks over the status of Jimmy Choos. People here not only embrace-- but often come out in defense of "ordinary beauty." We have the tree sitters in Berkeley, and the artists of the re-purposed landfill at Albany Bulb. I also think of my colleague who traversed the East Bay and took hundreds of photos just of Wisteria. Home prices in the East Bay are high, but its good to know that the people here can not be bought.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Berkeley Sold Home Prices April 2008

Address Original Price Sold Price Original Price % DOM
Berkeley Map Area 1

1442 CAMPUS DR $849,000 $734,500 87% 113

601 EUCLID AVE $1,400,000 $1,300,000 93% 27

2224 ROSE STREET $965,000 $979,875 102% 18

108 FOREST LN $799,000 $780,000 98% 20

1171 Sutter St $949,000 $955,000 101% 16

1373 CAMPUS DR $1,065,000 $1,125,000 106% 17

1111 OXFORD ST $849,000 $835,000 98% 12

1094 CRAGMONT AVE $799,000 $905,000 113% 10

982 GRIZZLY PEAK BLVD $1,025,000 $1,075,000 105% 4
$8,700,000 $8,689,375 100% 26

Berkeley Map Area 2

658 The Alameda $1,175,000 $1,252,000 107% 13
$1,175,000 $1,252,000 107% 13

Berkeley Map Area 3

1541 EDITH ST $699,000 $777,000 111% 9

1505 MILVIA ST $969,000 $1,071,000 111% 15
$1,668,000 $1,848,000 111% 12

Berkeley Map Area 4

1210 CORNELL AVE $525,000 $499,000 95% 53

1379 CEDAR ST $629,000 $629,000 100% 15
$1,154,000 $1,128,000 98% 34

Berkeley Map Area 5

1330 HARMON ST $499,900 $440,000 88% 81

998 VIRGINIA ST $549,000 $676,000 123% 13
$1,048,900 $1,116,000 106% 47

Berkeley Map Area 6

2125 9TH ST $459,000 $410,000 89% 63
$459,000 $410,000 89% 63

Berkeley Map Area 7

1249 BANCROFT WAY $639,900 $500,000 78% 101

2340 MCKINLEY AVE $639,000 $600,000 94% 30

2319 EDWARDS ST $499,000 $546,000 109% 10

1518 MARTIN LUTHER KING JR WAY $1,050,000 $1,200,000 114% 0
$2,827,900 $2,846,000 101% 35

Berkeley Map Area 8

1234 Haskell St $606,000 $500,000 83% 137

1733 DERBY ST $450,000 $365,000 81% 34

2600 Grant St $584,900 $690,000 118% 8

1525 CARLETON ST $579,000 $635,000 110% 11
$2,219,900 $2,190,000 99% 48

Berkeley Map Area 9

2304 Woolsey St $725,000 $770,000 106% 8
$725,000 $770,000 106% 8

Berkeley Map Area 10

2960 PINE AVE $899,000 $955,000 106% 28

111 ALVARADO ROAD $1,700,000 $1,900,000 112% 12

117 EL CAMINO REAL $1,195,000 $1,210,000 101% 14

14 BRIDGE RD $1,050,000 $1,160,000 110% 13
$4,844,000 $5,225,000 108% 17

Saturday, April 26, 2008

This is Dedicated to the One I Love (Part II)

If life is like a box of chocolates, an offer to purchase your home is the accompanying Hallmark card. Sometimes straightforward terms and a good price are enough. But often buyers find their position is strengthened by a letter of adoration.

Many sellers are still emotionally invested in the home they are leaving. Buyers who are sensitive to this can often capture a sellers attention even over a higher offer. In our office, many of the agents have individual stories about the seller who left significant money on the table in order to accept an offer from the buyer they felt was the best match for their house. Other buyers were given a second chance at bat, when sellers liked the letter and asked them if they could match the high offer.

There are a few examples of the seller that felt insulted at the prospect of having his/her heart strings pulled in such an obvious manner. However, the risk of this offense is low because this seller-- trying to keep it a purely financial decision, will most likely ignore the letter and the highest offer (even if accompanied by the offending letter) will still prevail.

So what makes a good love letter? There are some guidelines to follow:

  1. Never include pictures of yourself or family, regardless of how endearing you think they might be. This may actually violate the Fair Housing Act, because there is an implication that the sellers may make their decision based on race or family make up as derived from visual information contained in the photos.
  2. Be careful about including information about your pets. Sparky may truly love the back yard but unless you know that the seller is a pet lover, this may actually turn them off. Showing a picture of your cat won't violate fair housing laws, but it might offend the sellers who have been nurturing song birds in the back yard.
  3. The more specific the better. Compare the following examples:
    • I love your beautiful kitchen.
    • I love your beautiful kitchen. The tile you used on the back splash is gorgeous and would have been my choice as well. I enjoy baking and the center island is perfect for kneading bread. I also love to entertain and none of the other homes I have seen have your homes' wonderful indoor/outdoor access to the yard....
  4. If you need help ask for it. Your agent has likely seen a few good love letters. Ask for feedback. Your presentation might benefit from a bit of constructive criticism.
  5. Don't include personal contact information. It is not appropriate for the Seller and Buyer to start communicating directly at this early stage. There is a reason both parties are represented by their agent. In the beginning, it might seem to be all about the love, but if negotiations get prickly both parties will benefit from third party representation.
  6. If you can't find anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. If the purchase for you is a purely logical investment, it might be difficult to wax poetic. If you can't find the words, let the offer stand alone.

Friday, April 25, 2008

This is Dedicated to the One I Love (Part I)

Residential real estate is an emotional industry. Rarely are decisions to buy or sell made for purely financial reasons. Families grow or diminish, jobs change, new adventures are contemplated. Real estate is all about life cycles. Our homes hold memories of the lives we live in their shelter. Beyond the paint colors and tile choices, your home is resplendent with personal touches. The rose bush you received on your birthday is planted in the garden. The children's growth rate gets charted on the door jamb. Your best friend has left a paw print in the concrete of the front walk.

Our homes leave a reciprocal impression as reflected in the patterns of our daily lives. We avoid the squeaking floor boards in order not to wake our partners. We know just what pressure to use when turning the shower nozzle in order to stop the drip. We instinctively find the light switch when entering a dark room. My favorite cinematic reflection of this is in It's a Wonderful Life (with apologies for referencing a Christmas movie in April) when an ecstatic George Bailey kisses the banister finial when it predictably falls off in his hand on the way up the stair. "Oh, look at this wonderful old drafty house."

This explains why it is often so hard to pack up and go. A home's mojo can also cast its spell on incoming buyers. Worse, smitten buyers in our marketplace are often forced to compete against other anonymous buyers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Wisteria Hysteria

I am only partly kidding when I attribute pockets of tremendous strength in our area to the wisteria being in bloom. There is something about wisteria adorning the side of a classic Berkeley brownshingle that simply cannot be improved upon. This week we can find wisteria on wood trellises and arbors, wisteria draping elegantly in front of a window. Three different types of it drape Maybeck’s First Church*, softening the concrete pillars with its amazing contrast of color, shape and fragrance. Another Maybeck landmark, the Kennedy music studio, is wearing a wrap of white wisteria along a balcony.
This has been a remarkably beautiful spring. It starts with the narcissus and expands to other bulbs: crocus, freesia, bluebells, tulips. The flowering trees this year provided a breathtaking display from white, to pale pink to deepest, richest magenta. But it’s the wisteria that many of us wait for.

When the new Haas School of Business was built a number of years ago now they built two trellises in front, facing Gayley road. Landscapers theoretically could have planted any climbing vine. But the choice was obvious, or one could say, essential. This is Berkeley after all; it needed to be wisteria.

The different varieties and hybrids allow us to be overpowered by its beauty over the course of several weeks. My neighbor has the densely packed form that was mostly bloomed out by last week. For the wisteria in my yard, draping gracefully over a small trellis, this is THE week. I stand under it, inhale deeply, and the perfume provides a mini-vacation for my senses.
I gave a tour of local homes to visitors from Indiana last week, and it was the wisteria that wowed them. We were supposed to be focused on houses, but we kept sharing announcements of the latest “wisteria alert.” They very much enjoyed the cherry trees. The echium was just starting to cover its spikes with intense shades of blue. I was able to drive them by a lovely display of tulips. Camellias were blooming in profusion. But it is the wisteria they will remember.

* The First Church of Christ, Scientist, considered by many to be Bernard Maybeck’s greatest masterpiece, is at the corner of Dwight Way and Bowditch in Berkeley. It is the only building in Berkeley that has been designated a National Landmark.

If you're a fellow wisteria enthusiast, you may enjoy my album of East Bay wisteria views from the past week.

All photos copyright © Arlene Baxter 2008.

Friday, April 18, 2008

How to Cut Your Property Tax Bill

Courtesy of David Anderson, Chicago Title

Proposition 8 - allows a temporary tax reduction when a property’s market value on January 1st, is below the prior years assessed value.

Ask your Assessor - if your home is worth less than you paid, chances are you can get a temporary reduction in your property taxes. It’s free and easy to do yourself.

Assessors in some Bay Area counties hit hard by the housing downturn – Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara and Solano – are automatically reviewing homes purchased in the past few years to see if the homeowner qualifies for a cut in assessed value for 2008-09.

Even in these counties, homeowners who think their home’s market value on Jan. 1 was lower than the assessed value on their last property tax bill can ask for a review.

You can call or write your assessor’s office or download a form from their Web site and mail it to the assessor. To provide tax relief the assessor will be looking at recent sales in your area that are comparable to your home. If the homeowner and the assessor cannot agree on a value through this information process, the homeowner can file a formal appeal with the county’s assessment appeals board, which will have the final say on the property’s value.

The formal appeal must be submitted between July 2 and Sept. 15 in counties that send assessment notices to all homeowners by Aug. 1. In the Bay Area, these include Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

Before filing a claim for an adjustment, be advised that your assessed value could increase once market values go up. Property owners should consult directly with the Assessors Office to inquire on how this would be determined before filing any forms.

For more information on assessment appeals from the state Board of Equalization, see


Access forms online for Alameda and Contra Costa:



Tip for Homeowners: Your Realtor can help you by providing some recent home sales data in your area which can help justify your request to lower the assessed value of your home. Some counties are considered depreciating markets even though individual cities and neighborhoods remain strong. (See our post on Appraising the Current Market Situation.) Check with your local real estate representative to learn more about home values in your area, and to discuss whether a reduction of your home's assessed value can be justified.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Multiple Micro Markets

By Arlene Baxter

A month ago in this space we reported on a jaw-dropping example of over-bidding in what the mass media still describes as a “buyers’ market.” A two-bedroom, one-bath home in Rockridge, listed for $799K had received 17 offers. It sold this week for $930K, 16% over list. Yesterday I was one of six agents presenting offers on a property in North Oakland, and I routinely hear of colleagues who are presenting one of three to six offers on homes. That’s unremarkable for those of us selling in Albany, Kensington, North Berkeley, Elmwood or Rockridge. What was a bit unusual in this case was that the house was just one block off a part of Telegraph Ave. with fairly high crime statistics. And only a few blocks away several homes are in foreclosure, and others have had several price reductions.

The home I presented an offer for was very charming with lovely period details and a tastefully updated kitchen, a feature that often translates into considerable interest. The overall charm, plus a full basement, tantalized my clients, despite the fact that the price seemed quite high for the location. A dozen other buyers were attracted as well. And so, to be as competitive as possible, my clients decided to do a pre-inspection. At the high-point of the market this was one of several practices used to gain some advantage in the bidding. Some other aggressive practices were pre-emptive offers, and relative offers, both of which have re-emerged this spring. Conducting inspections in advance of presenting an offer allows buyers to go in without an inspection contingency, as they’ve already truly inspected the property. It means they have also spent around $600, and they and their agent have spent another four hours or so bonding with a property that they may not be able to buy.

Within the written disclosures, items may be mentioned as “possible areas of concern.” That’s a very different perspective than when a highly knowledgeable inspector points to a roof with missing shingles and says “this roof is shot: it needs replacing.” That was the recommendation for our charming bungalow. We also were shown a leaking, rusting water heater and an ancient boiler for a radiant heat system. It needed earthquake retrofitting, demolition of a chimney and various other smaller fixes‑-some inexpensive to deal with, some that could lead to a domino effect of other requirements. So my clients backed off from what they had anticipated offering. That put them in third place out of six, evidently well behind the first two offers.

The question on everyone’s mind is Why? Why, in a general atmosphere of doom and gloom regarding the lending industry, and when increasing numbers of short sales and foreclosures are appearing on the market, are there still pockets of such strength here in the East Bay? I believe it’s a combination of factors:

1). Sub-prime loans never were much of a factor in the hotter locations

2). We have no room here to build new developments, the property types that have suffered the most in many parts of California

3). This is an area of intrinsic desirability. It is physically beautiful. It has interesting topography. Within minutes we can be in the woods of Tilden or at the Bay. And we are surrounded by mostly attractive, and in some cases positively gorgeous homes. As Realtors we have the opportunity to represent beautiful architecture, including the works of some true masters. That gives our jobs, as well as our clients, a kind of satisfaction that does not exist in the areas where foreclosures now dominate.

4). We have easy access to interesting, colorful, delicious things that are hard to find in so many areas. The large population of immigrants attracted to the San Francisco area has produced remarkable cultural diversity in our part of the East Bay. In practical terms that has resulted in the broad availability of many types of ethnic music, phenomenal ethnic cuisine at reasonable prices and celebrations from many cultures that have become now part of our experience.

5). Berkeley especially, but other academic settings within the East Bay as well, have attracted huge numbers of people who are attracted to “the life of the mind.” And finally. . .

6). It’s the wisteria. I am only partly kidding. More to come. . .

All photos copyright © Arlene Baxter 2008.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Three Moves are as Good as a Fire

Moving is stressful. There is so much to do. Packing alone can seem insurmountable. It's spring cleaning times 1000. The good news is that (like spring cleaning) it is a chance to clear clutter and get rid of the stuff you have that you don't really need. There is a saying that three moves are as good as one fire in terms of helping reduce the burden of excess. For those of you who are moving, we're with you. For those of you immersed in a good seasonal purge, happy spring cleaning. For those of you looking for less stuff and more fun, here's some fabulous motivation:

Tip for Clutter Busters: Don't send your stuff to the landfill. Find it a new home. Post it here: